turn 18 today. Danny's throwing me a surprise party. I'm not supposed
to know but momma let that cat out of the bag.
She came home. Doctors say she's gonna be confined to a wheelchair. I dare not mention that around momma. She'll just argue with you. Says she's fine. Her mask is so transparent. She's not fine. But I can't tell her otherwise.
Not sure how long things are gonna last at home before we're forced to move back to St. Mary's. Frank says we'll just have to take one day at a time. But how are you supposed to do that knowing the Monster of Saneville is just around the corner, stalking your every move?
The Monster's funny that way. Sometimes at bay, vacationing, leaving the town of Saneville to it's lonely self, finally getting a rest in peaceful solitude. But then it gets hungry and gorges its way back into full swing, devouring all of little hope in sight. The Monster of Saneville feeds on our fears, so he grows stronger with each sighting.
Momma's resting on her favorite couch now, the one with the paisley print and worn out cushions. I curl up in the matching armchair, drinking my chai and glancing through my journal entries etched years ago.
August 7th, 2011. Birthday Surprise: The Copper Keys. I had forgotten about them. I had just turned 14. Momma had carefully wrapped 'em with the flimsy silver wrapping paper, the thin kind that crinkles and rips so easily. I knew the present had to be special.
I never found out where they went to. Frank took the keys away and hid them in a kitchen drawer. Not a very good hiding spot for a ravenous teen.
Maybe the keys are a clue. Maybe she was trying to tell me something.
I rip apart our rowhome, desperately searching for something, anything a set of old, worn copper keys could open. I'm searching for an answer.
Hidden beneath an old tattered mattress sits a locked jewelry box undisturbed. A thin layer of dust encases the wood like chalk. It's been down there for a while.
My fingers leave little imprints as I inspect the forgotten treasure, turning over the edges, as if looking for a secret message. Three drawers adorn the front, each with a matching heartshaped lock. Hmm, why three?
The more I wonder, the more I scream, 'cause there are no answers when the Monster's lurking... I quickly hide the box so He doesn't find it and take it away.
Meaning. I told Frank about the box over leftover spaghetti dinner. He said I needed to find meaning in mom's gift to me, something called closure. Problem is there isn't any, not when someone's always sick like momma is.
August 8th, 2011. The Talk. I remember as if it were yesterday. Frank sat me down that night, ordering two large pizzas with extra pepperoni. I knew what this meant. Extra pep meant extra grown-up time.
“Honey, your mother underwent a procedure today called a spinal tap,” he started as he pulled on the ends of his curly red mustache. “They, um, took some fluids and ran some tests.”
“Tests? What kinda tests?”
Frank kept his hands busy, massacring his pizza with a paper towel, pounding out the oil. “Tests to look for signs.”
“Disease.” Cheese dripped from his chin hair. He busily wiped away the grease. “We got these immune systems, honey, but sometimes they don't work like they're supposed to.”
“Okay... So, what happens then?”
Frank slid me three slices stacked high. This was serious. “Lots of things, but in your mother's case, it causes lots of problems, like memory, walking, even her mood. You know she's been ill for so long. It's even worse 'cause no one knows why. But the spinal tap, well, it helps the doctors make a diagnosis.”
My stomach flipped. “A diagnosis?”
He nodded. “They think they know what's causing your mother's problems, like when she falls over, blacks out, doesn't remember.” Frank's mouth was full of half chewed crust.
I look down. “So if they know what's wrong then they can make her better, right? This is a good thing?”
Frank picked off the last of his pepperoni, rolling them into little hollow cigarettes. “Maybe. Maybe not. It's complicated.”
“Complicated?” It's a complicated word, complication. “Is it cancer?”
“Oh God. Worse than cancer?”
The pepperoni slides down his throat in wads. “Doctors say she has something called MS.”
Frank nodded. “Multiple Sclerosis.”
“Oh, like what cousin JJ has.”
“Huh?” Frank squinted his eyes at me. “Oh, no, no, that's scoliosis. Your mother has Multiple Sclerosis.”
“What does that mean?”
Frank sighed. “You gotta understand one thing, Maggie. MS affects everyone differently.”
“It's not an easy diagnosis... Like I said, it's complicated.” His eyes looked tired, dragging into his jaw. “But the important thing is now we can get treatment.”
Wow. I can't believe that was 4 years ago. Why does it still hurt so much?
I close my journal, its ink smudging my palms. The Monster's mean. Cruel. Why does it make momma so sick when other people's mommas look so normal?
I met a girl named Rebecca last week at a MS support group. Frank made me go. They give you cold pizza and apple juice and make you sit in a circle with other kids whose parents have MS. Rebecca's mom was diagnosed when she was 8, but her mom still works in a nice office downtown, drives a big fancy SUV and even makes us chocolate cranberry cookies from scratch for their Volleyball bakesale.
“She's got her bad days,” Rebecca insists. “Missed church 'cause she couldn't get outta bed.”
“Missed church? Miss church?” I snapped. “Oh, poor you. Try not gettin' out of bed for years. Try not being able to talk or take a shit without everyone watchin.”
Afterward, I regreted what I said, but it was too late. Rebecca now sits across the room from me, as far as she can get with her arms folded and head in her heart.
I don't get it. The MS support groups were supposed to help. Danny promises he'll go with me next time, but after what happened with Rebecca, I don't wanna ever go again.
“Jesus, Maggie,” says Danny as he flips through the radio. We're sitting in his car. Yes, his car. A shiny '02 Toyota Camry, silver with soft tan seats that smell like artificial lemon meringue pie. “You're acting like it's a goddamn competition.”
“What?” I push his hand away and tune into my favorite station. “I'm NOT competing with anyone.”
“I think you are.”
I slouch, resting my bare feet on the dashboard. “Like you would know.”
Danny turns down Maple Avenue, passing by the coffee shop with the best crepes in town. I can smell the strawberries from in here. Or maybe that's my shampoo. “I'm just sayin' you don't know what that Rebecca girl is going through.”
“Oh, please. I do. I get it.” I fiddle with the automatic window. Up, down, up, down. “Only her mom's not bedridden. Her mom's so freakin' normal! Why is everyone else's life so perfect except mine? Why me?"
Danny stops the car, plummeting me toward my feet. “Shit, Danny. What the fuck?”
“You wanna know what normal is, Maggie? Having your sister given two more years to live, but not even getting one. Having everyone tell you how sorry they are when they don't even know your name... Normal doesn't exist! You of all people should know that.”
I swallow. “I should of, I didn't... I, I didn't mean it.”
“Yeah, I think you did.” Danny pulls over. “And it sucks when you talk like that.”
I'm crying, my heart ripping in two. “I can't do anything right anymore.”
“No, just don't. You're right. You're absolutely right! I don't get shit.” My hands are shaking. I reach for the door handle but can't see past my elbow. Everything's a blur.
Danny reaches for my arm. “That's the problem. You DO get it. You get it so much that other people's problems don't mean crap to you anymore.”
“I care, I do, I just...” I wipe away streaks of mascara. Why do I keep putting this stuff on? “I miss her. I miss momma, the way she was. Before...”
“Before?” The radio's humming low, making me feel like I'm in the ocean.
"Life fucked everything up?" Danny stares at the steering wheel.
I slide my hand on top of his. "How old would she be today?"
"24... I miss her so goddamn much, you know?”
“I know. Maybe, well, I'd like to go see her, if that's okay.”
Danny's fidgeting. "Well, uh, I was gonna-"
"Take me to my surpise party?" Danny flinches. "It's okay. It can wait."
"How did you know?"
I smile. "Doesn't matter. I want to spend this day with you and Felicia."
He nods. "Have I told you lately how awesome you are?"
"Oh... Well, you are, even when you drive me crazy."
We visit Felicia's gravestone every Saturday morning. The leaves are extra damp. Their wetness soaks through my boots and seeps between my toes. People. Everywhere they're people clad in black except for us. We're wearing school clothes. Good jeans and bright comfy hoodies.
Danny doesn't cry as much as he used to, not in public any how. I imagine he does in his bedroom where no one can see him and ask what's wrong. That's what I do at least.
“Thanks for coming out with me.” Danny slowly wraps his arm around my waist. “Means a lot.”
For a minute I wonder if this will be me in a few years, visiting momma. I shake my head, turning into Danny and smiling. “That's what girlfriends do, right?” He kisses my forehead in the dimple between my eyes. “Tell me again what she was like, when you two were little.”
Felicia died. Six months ago. I want to tell you more about her, more about her life, who she was and how much she meant, but Danny would do a better job. Danny should be the one to tell you about her. Maybe he will. Maybe he can tell the next story.
PART THREE: FELICIA...
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